Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

More, more, more

Other people’s words about … not being afraid

I don’t know how to explain this, except that everything in my life changed after I had children. I didn’t understand how to parent. No one really knows how to parent until they have kids but I’ve often worried that I parent scared … I didn’t know there were ways to protect the people you loved and not be fearful. Or that we don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway.

From ‘Elsey Come Home’
by Susan Conley

It might seem odd that I feel an affinity with Susan Conley’s words in the passage above, given that I’m not a parent, given that parenthood hasn’t changed my life in the way that she, as a parent, describes it having changed hers. And yet there is such a resonance for me in this passage. Conley’s words apply, I think, not just to parenthood, but to life. I’ve often worried that I parent scared, she writes — but how easy would it be to change the wording slightly? To say instead, I’ve often worried that I live scared?

Quiet skes

I’ve had a funny week this week. I’m still fretting about the way, as the lockdown stage of the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, the quietness of our world has also, inevitably, begun to recede. There were more people in the office at work this week, more bodies squeezed into our small call centre room, more voices speaking into telephones, more colleagues speaking over each other in an effort to be heard. There were more customers in the shops, cars on the road, commuters on the trains, pedestrians in the streets, people on the beach. There was more laughter, yes, but there was also more noise. There was more of everything.

We don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway, Conley writes, and she is right: just as we had no control over the pandemic happening in the first place, so, also, we don’t have much control over its aftermath. All we can control, as always, is our response to these things.

My response is to try to teach myself to carry the quietness I felt blossom inside of me during the lockdown back into the world as it reopens. But I have to confess that this remains a work in progress. I feel as though I have to learn to retune the strings of my heart: as though, when I plucked them during the lockdown, they made music, but now, once again, all they make is discordant, jangling noise.

So I have no solutions to offer in my post this week, except to say: here I am, plucking away, trying to make music, trying to make a song. Are you, too, learning to sing?

Quiet waters

Lately I’ve been reading …

Bright lights

Other people’s words about … living small

His approach, enjoying small spots of nature every day rather than epic versions of wilderness and escape, made sense to me. Big trips were the glaciers, cruise ships to Madagascar, the Verdon Gorge, the Cliffs of Moher, walking on the moon. Small trips were city parks with abraded grass, the occasional foray to the lake-woods of Ontario, a dirt pile. Smallness did not dismay me. Big nature travel — with its extreme odysseys and summit-fixated explorers — just seemed so, well, grandiose.The drive to go bigger and further just one more instance of the overreaching at the heart of Western culture.

I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.

From ‘Birds Art Life Death’
by Kyo Maclear

This week marks a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world begins to open up again, economically. Here in South Australia, several restrictions will be lifted from 11 May. Cafes will reopen for outdoor eating; travel within the state (to holiday houses and campgrounds) will be encouraged; libraries will open their doors to patrons; swimming pools and community halls will be available for public use once more. All of these reopenings are accompanied by regulations that we could never have imagined prior to the pandemic, most of which are to do with the amount of people gathering in any one spot, and the distance they must keep between each other. But still, even with those rules in place for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the lockdown is easing slowly.

And I am glad — glad that so few people are ill and dying here now in South Australia; glad that people whose livelihoods have been threatened by the closures of their businesses can now have a chance to make a living again; glad that people who have felt isolated and lonely during lockdown can go out into the world again and reconnect.

But also, I find myself feeling a little sad as the quiet time comes to an end.

Cafe life during the pandemic: the not-so-bright lights

Because, like Kyo Maclear, I, too, on the whole, like smallness. I don’t mean that I like illness or poverty or death — of course not. I don’t mean, either, that I can’t see how incredibly fortunate I’ve been (so far) during this pandemic, given that my health, and the health of all the people I love, remains intact. Given that I still have a job and an income.

But still, for the longest time — for as long as I can remember, in fact — I have felt out of tune with what Maclear calls the overreaching at the heart of Western culture. Over and over in my life, I have sought smallness over largeness; quietness over noise; scarcity over plenitude; closeness over distance; solitude over the throng. Often, this pursuit has felt less like a choice to me than a compulsion or a duty. Often, it has felt very lonely.

During the lockdown, though, as life has shrunk and quietened, as the crowds have thinned and ebbed away, I have seen my instincts and compulsions aligning themselves with the changing world around me. And in this quieter, smaller world, I have felt something inside of me loosen and release. I have felt, for once, at peace.

Through a window: looking up and out to the light

In the society I live in, a Western society like Maclear’s, we are encouraged to spend big, to think big. To live big. In tandem, we are encouraged to ignore the damage that results from doing so — the damage to the environment we live in, and the damage to the quiet places within ourselves, to the truths we feel in the smallness of our own hearts.

Coronavirus has affected the world on a global scale: its effects have been enormous, and they will be long-lasting. And yet, how perverse would it be, to borrow a word from Maclear, if what we take away from this catastrophe is a desire to live smaller, to aim tiny? How audacious? How — dare I say it — wonderful?

Deserted beach: this beautiful light

Lately I’ve been reading …

Enough

Other people’s words about … running

When it was light enough to run, I set out on the path that circles Lake Burley-Griffin. The last time I’d run there, I had mucked up that marathon. The temperature hovered at zero: my ungloved hands were painfully cold, and my throat burned on each inhalation. Heavy banks of mist rose from the water; garnet-coloured leaves caught the first morning sunlight; galahs dug for seeds in grasslands rigid with frost; yellow poplars blazed alongside conifers and eucalypts I couldn’t name; hot-air balloons floated from the horizon at the opposite bank. I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition. I ran too because once I’d committed to the loop, I had no other way of getting back to my car.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Two weeks ago, feeling sore and stiff and out of sorts and achey, I googled ‘hip flexor stretches for runners’ (or some such other, similar, innocuous phrase) and downloaded a set of five stretches that I vowed to do daily, in an effort to loosen up my nearly-fifty-year-old, sedentary worker’s body.

That, at least, was the plan. But one of those five daily stretches was a kind of yoga squat: a pose where you bend your knees from a standing position and lower yourself down to a straight-backed crouch — keeping the soles of your feet flat on the ground and placing your arms between your knees, hands in prayer position — and then stay there, in that deep, stationary squat, for a minute or two. I did this comfortably enough (though somewhat awkwardly) on Day One. On Day Two, I felt sore afterwards; and then I made myself far, far sorer by going for a run despite that post-stretch soreness. And I’ve been sore ever since — so sore, in fact, that my physiotherapist tells me I need to lay off from running for now. Not because this is a running injury (it’s not, technically, since I didn’t get it while I was running), but because running exacerbates it.

So here I am, not running, for the first time since I took up running again back in 2017, at the age of forty-seven.

It is enough:
(1) There are pots of tea to brew …

Strangely enough, I don’t mind at all. I thought I would mind, and in a pre-pandemic life I probably would have. But today? Right now? I don’t.

Because if there is one thing I am grateful for, in this strange, post-pandemic world, it is that living in a lockdown has reminded me to slow down: to accept my life for what it is rather than for what I thought it might be. (Or could be. Or should be.) I am healthy, and so are my family and friends. I have a job, and a roof over my head, and a bed to sleep in. I have books to read, and pots of tea to brew, and cakes to bake, and beautiful bowls to eat from, and beaches to walk on (if not, for now, to run on).

That is what I have, and it is enough. It is truly enough.

It is enough:
(2) … and beautiful bowls to eat from.

When I read Catriona Menzies-Pike’s words in the passage above — I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition — I had to blink away tears. Those are the reasons I run, too. They are the reasons I will run again, one day sooner or later.

But still, what I have right now, though it isn’t that, is enough. It is another loop, though not of the running kind, and I am committed to it. And it is, simply, enough.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Beside the point

Other people’s words about … the world we live in

In the past few months [my eight-year-old son] Jack has become exasperated with my talking back to the radio. ‘You have to cheer up,’ he’ll say … And so I’ve been trying to keep most of my feelings about the news to myself. I’m grateful for the trust and sanguinity Jack displays these days, which makes me feel I’ve done something right. It’s only that, as the world seems to become an increasingly dangerous place, I wonder if happiness is the point. Maybe passion, something that can keep you satisfied inside your own head, independent of other people, is going to be worth more in Jack’s lifetime.

From ‘Lost and Wanted’
by Nell Freudenberger

The novel I’ve quoted from in today’s blog post was published in 2019, meaning that Freudenberger wrote it well before the coronavirus pandemic began. And here, in fact, when Freudenberger’s Boston-based narrator Helen mentions the world becoming an increasingly dangerous place, she is, in the context of the paragraphs that precede this passage, referring not to public health but to politics. Specifically, she is talking about the election of Donald Trump, and about the effect his policies have had on her and her world.

Still, Helen’s words ring eerily true to me in the world of 2020, this post-pandemic world. What is it that keeps us going when happiness is either inaccessible or beside the point? Is it passion, as Helen suggests? I’m not sure, but I do like the idea of finding something that can keep you satisfied inside your own head, independent of other people.

So tell me: what keeps you satisfied inside your own head? I’m curious. I’d love to know.

18 April 2020:
Aldinga Beach (my world)

Lately I’ve been reading …

Loveliness

Other people’s words about … a changing world

When I first arrived [in Rome] I cried almost every day for a month. Over nothing; over the state of the world; the news I saw on television; over the loveliness of the autumn sunshine on soft old stone. Great, wrenching sobs that came and went in moments and left me dazed.

From ‘In My Skin’
by Kate Holden

I’m writing this post on the day before Easter, 9 April 2020, a day in which, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the number of people who have contracted the coronavirus globally has reached 1,504,971. Of those, 87,984 people have died, and 318,068 people have recovered. Meanwhile, here in Australia, where the virus has barely (yet) made a dent, we are being encouraged to stay at home for the Easter break, instead of going away as so many of us usually do.

Stay home, we are being told. Stay well. Stop the spread.

Lunchtime view: On the pontoon (1)

It’s impossible to say how many Australians will obey these directives. Impossible to say, if we don’t, how many cases of coronavirus there will be here in two weeks’ time. Impossible to say, therefore, what the world, our world, will look like in two weeks’ time.

And what of the aftermath? When this crisis is over — when the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course, as we are being told it will — what will our world look like then? Will our lives simply resume where they left off? Or will the way we live, the world we walk through, be changed forever?

Impossible to say.

*

In her memoir In My Skin, Kate Holden tells the story of her addiction to heroin: how she became addicted, what it was like, how she moved on. For her, the process of getting clean involved as much loss and grief as it did relief and joy: the world around her seemed strange, and new, and exhausting.

All I did, in the daytime, was walk. On the move until I was too baffled by weariness to feel anything, I wandered, almost every day, through the soft ochre streets, the narrow old spaces, learning the city, studying it. I made myself a scholar again, and sat in the cold sunshine of a city that had withstood destruction and rebirth many times, and let myself be suffused with dreaming. I walked in different weathers and times of day, learning about change and constancy. In quietness, I walked Rome. Sometimes I worked up the courage to venture further.

It’s autumn here in Australia, and the days are filled with the kind of still, gentle, lovely sunshine that Holden describes in the first of the passages I’ve quoted above. Because of COVID-19, I can’t fly to Rome, as she did in the aftermath of her heroin addiction, to wander the old streets and learn the world anew. Nor can you.

But: I made myself a scholar again, Holden writes; and this, I think, is something all of us can do right now, wherever we are in the world. We can watch and walk and study and learn.

Lunchtime view: On the pontoon (2)

The world is changing, and so, inevitably, will we. One day, when this is over, we will venture further again, whatever venturing may mean, whatever further may mean.

In the quietness of this strange, new, exhausting world, here, at least, is something we can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

That place

Other people’s words about … slowing down

He opened the window and let in the ocean, gulped in that grey air as though oxygen was enough to save him from the people in the house, watched the waves, noted the dark rip forming at the southern end of the beach. He ignored the sound of Charlie’s voice in the lounge, hilarious, oblivious, the sounds of the girl in the bathroom behind him, scrubbing insistently; called to mind the tentacles of the cloud from earlier, saw the colours he’d mix [if he were to paint it], the strokes, the shapes. After a few moments, his breathing slowed and he began to enter the place where no one else could come.

From‘Bluebottle‘
By Belinda Castles

It’s hard to know what to say, let alone what to write about, in times like this. Surely I am not alone in beginning to think of 2020 as the year of disasters — first, here in Australia, the bushfires; then, globally, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low ebb

About the coronavirus, I have nothing useful to say. It is only just beginning to hit here in Australia, and — despite the chance that Australians had, over the last few weeks, to learn from people’s experiences of it in the northern hemisphere — it appears that we have done very little to protect ourselves. Though we are not yet in lockdown, I suspect we will be soon.

Birds of a feather

Before the coronavirus situation began to escalate here, I was lucky enough to have the chance to slip away for a few days to Kangaroo Island. The photos in this post are from those few days.

Half of the island — yes, half — was destroyed by the bushfires earlier this year. Even without the pandemic, it is a time of great sadness on the Island.

Exposed

But I have nothing to say about that sadness, either. Instead, my photographs here celebrate, I hope, the beauty of the unburned half of the Island. In times of sadness, we have to find things to celebrate, yes?

Enter that place

Also, to borrow Belinda Castles’s words from the quote above and to use them in a different context, we have to slow down, despite our panic; we have to breathe in fresh air. We have to turn inward, finding and enter[ing] that place where no one else [can] come.

In the end, we have to find a way, within ourselves, to survive.

It is what it is

Other people’s words about … looking beautiful

I like to look clean and presentable, but I don’t think about beauty too much. It’s just not in my mind.

Lulu Goddard
‘My Beauty Uniform’
In A Cup of Jo

Though I understand the difference between internal and external beauty, and the importance of the former in contrast to the latter, I think I will always remain fascinated by the way other women look, and, even more, the way other women feel about the way they look. Most of all, I will always be interested in how other women find peace with themselves and their appearance.

So I loved the interview from which I’ve quote above with Lulu Goddard, whose cheerful, no-nonsense attitude to her appearance reflects her cheerful, no-nonsense, humble attitude to life in general. You can find the rest of interview here.

Restorative

Lulu’s a tea-drinker, like me. She drinks several cups a day, and enjoys a slice of cake with her tea. Reading her interview over my own morning pot of tea, I found myself smiling in agreement with much of what she said. There is much to worry about in this world, and my posts recently have touched on this. But it’s good to step back from all of these things, too, just for a few moments each day: to allow yourself to be restored.

Which is, perhaps, just my way of saying: here’s another important way to find peace with yourself and your life.

Metronome

Other people’s words about … feeling wrong

I walked out of the class then, back into the hallway, thinking that this was another thing I didn’t understand: how you can work so hard on a report, you can even earn an A, but you still walk away feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Like you, yourself, are terribly wrong.

From ‘The Thing about Jellyfish’
by Ali Benjamin

I mentioned in previous posts that I’ve been tired recently, too tired to run very far. And honestly? I still feel that way. I’m still tired, and though, having had a couple of weeks off running altogether when I was sick with a cold, I’ve come back to it, I’m still lacking energy and verve, still lacking that feeling of rightness that I usually associate with running.

At the moment, in fact, I’m running more because I remember the sense of rightness and joy that running gives me than because I actually feel it in the present.

View on the run (1)
Pathway to the horizon

In a funny way, the quote in today’s post encapsulates not only the way I’ve felt all my life — the feeling that I’m wrong; that I get things wrong; that I’ll never, ever get them right — but also the particular feeling that I have right now, when I’m out on the path, running (and stopping, mid-run, to take photographs like the ones in today’s post). The truth is, I feel wrong, right now, when I run. But I keep running, anyway.

View on the run (2)
Three little ducks

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting back to reading novels for younger people again over the last few months, these months of tiredness, after a long time away from them — novels written for young adults, for middle-grade readers, for kids. And I’ve loved every minute of my reading. I’ve been reminded, reading these books, of all the things I used to love about them: the poignancy of the voices of protagonists like thirteen-year-old Suzy in The Thing about Jellyfish, the freshness, the truth. Her words ring true across the generations, at least for me.

I’d turned away from reading books for younger people over the last few years, because I thought that I couldn’t write for that audience anymore, and because I thought I was the wrong reader, the wrong writer.

View on the run (3)
Baby almonds

But maybe that’s the thing: maybe, sometimes, you have to do things, anyway, regardless of how wrong you feel doing it. Maybe the rightness comes from doing it anyway — despite, or because.

View on the run (4)
Two’s company

So I’m out there running these days, both despite and because. And whether the joy is there, whether the feeling of rightness is there, I’ll keep running like this until something stops me, or until the joy and the rightness return.

Because there’s a rhythm to these things, I think: a rhythm to the pounding of my feet on the footpath, a metronome ticking away, the same way that life ticks away.

And that rhythm, that ticking, is the only true, right thing I know.

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is. They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers. That’s not true. What you need is some freedom of movement and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace. When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

After I wrote my last post here, in which I mentioned that I’d been too tired to run very much recently, I caught a cold and stopped running altogether for almost three weeks. It was probably the longest period I’ve gone without running since I took the habit up again, back in 2015, at the age of forty-five.

This past Thursday, I went for my first run since catching that cold, feeling fragile and wobbly and exhausted. I was so tired that I ran half the distance that I usually run, and I stopped at the midway point — partly to rest, partly just to soak up the wonder of being out under the sky again, with my feet thudding against the ground.

I sat on a rock looking out over the sailboats anchored in the cove, and I thanked whatever grace it is that allows me to continue to run. There are so many people who would like to run but can’t, whether because of disability or illness, injury or lack of opportunity. I remembered that I am one of the lucky ones: that it is my great good fortune and privilege to be able to run, however slow my pace, however short my distance.

I took the photographs in today’s post as I was sitting on those rocks, midway through that run. It was a short, tiring, exhausting, feeble run, and it left me feeling both humbled and blessed.

And that is what I love most about this privileged pursuit of mine: the gratitude it feels me with. The joy that it brings.